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3 new books in translation blend liberation with darkness

Cover of three books in translation
Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR

Many novels end in liberation of one sort or another. It is a reliable way to offer catharsis, to give readers the feeling of escape while writing a book that is not escapist as such.

Blending liberation with darkness is, then, nothing new — but three new novels in translation take the mix as far as it can go.

In Augusto Higa Oshiro's slim, dizzying The Enlightenment of Katzuo Nakamatsu, translated by Jennifer Shyue, death looms over every page; in Domenico Starnone's sprawling The House on Via Gemito, translated by Oonagh Stransky, emotional freedom requires an arduous battle through awful memories; and in Aurora Venturini's hair-raising Cousins, translated by Kit Maude, nearly everything seems like a sick joke. Yet Cousins is the most triumphant by far of these three books, which together form a tour of human darkness. Truly, liberation comes in many forms.

The Enlightenment of Katzuo Nakamatsu

Katzuo Nakamatsu, the protagonist of the Peruvian writer Augusto Higa Oshiro's first book to be translated into English, is, like his creator, the son of working-class immigrants who left Okinawa for Lima. At 58, he is solitary and adrift, neither connected to Lima's tight Japanese-Peruvian community nor at home in Peru, where he feels himself "impassive, strange, marginal, ...almost a foreigner." He has premonitions of death and is frequently "burdened [by] the weight of consciousness, unseeing affliction." When he abruptly loses his job as a literature professor, his sense of impending death turns into suicidal ideation. He starts wandering Lima, conducting "farewell ritual[s]" and communicating with the ghosts of his parents' generation. In Higa Oshiro's writing, this "testimony of a past sealed off" feels natural; each sentence and paragraph is porous, open to slippage of all sorts. It is beautiful writing, rendered beautifully by Jennifer Shyue. It is also strikingly hard to remember. Readers experience Katzuo's lostness along with him as the book spirals into what could be transcendence, psychosis, or — as its narrator, a former colleague of Katzuo's, eventually seems to suggest — both.

The Enlightenment of Katzuo Nakamatsu feels steeped in the narrator's grief for Katzuo and in Katzuo's grief for the lost past, and yet Higa Oshiro takes a tone of wonder more often than sorrow. Katzuo's wanderings become an odyssey; the "secret spirituality" he nurtures at the novella's start flowers into a world. Higa Oshiro was, in the 1970s, a member of Peru's realist Grupo Narración movement, but The Enlightenment of Katzuo Nakamatsu qualifies in only the barest sense as realism. It never quite departs what we know to be possible, but a sad magic pervades it anyway.

The House on Via Gemito

Domenico Starnone is one of Italy's major contemporary writers, a regular award-winner perhaps most known in the United States for Ties, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri. It's worth noting, at least for Starnone fans, that Oonagh Stransky's rendition of The House on Via Gemito, a shaggy, digressive tale of a man struggling to free himself from the memory of his cruel fabulist of a father, is less smooth than Lahiri's, especially where slang is concerned. The House on Via Gemito is set in Naples, in a working-class home whose patriarch, Federí, dreams of artistic success and upward mobility, and yet its language, in translation, is almost purely proper; any obscenity or colloquialism jars. Still, much of the novel moves seamlessly. Its narrator, Domenico or Mimí, relays scene after scene of childhood memory, each shaped by his father's self-mythologizing and selfishness. As a boy, Mimí does "everything I can at this point in time not to upset him;" by adolescence, he wants to kill him. His warring desires to destroy his father and banish his father's violence from his own psyche are, by far, the most interesting parts of the book.

Sadly, Starnone gives young Mimí much less time on the page than he does Federí, who is given to boasting about everything from the mafiosi he's defied to the 'fact' that his paintings had "appeared in more than forty shows nationally and... been exhibited in Paris, France and later in Miami." Over the course of nearly 450 pages, such fibs grow repetitive, then wearisome — which is, eventually, what lets the adult Mimí escape them. He has to retell his father's lies in detail, investigating each one, in order to take their power away; he has to do the same with his memories of Federí abusing him and his long-suffering mother Rusinè. Psychologically, the process makes absolute sense, and is moving to behold. But in a more streamlined novel, Mimí's liberation might move the reader more.

Cousins

In 2007, when the Argentinian critic, writer, and translator Aurora Venturini was 85, her fearless, shocking, and utterly engrossing Cousins won the newspaper Página/12's New Novel award. It was Venturini's last book, and her biggest mainstream success. In a preface to Kit Maude's translation, the literary-horror writer Mariana Enriquez, one of the award's pre-jurors that year, describes putting Cousins down and calling another pre-juror to express "my surprise, my confusion, my admiration. Was this a brilliant novel? What was so brilliant about it? The risks it takes? The eccentricity? The fact that I'd never seen anything like it?"

Cousins is risky, all right. Its central subjects are squalor and exploitation; sexual assault and abjection pervade the book. Its narrator, Yuna, is a young woman coming of age in provincial Argentina. She is a gifted painter, but faces cognitive difficulties that Venturini leaves vague. Her sister Betina has major physical and mental disabilities that appall Yuna, who wonders "how was it possible that someone so ugly and horrible existed... Poor thing." Yet Yuna does not let herself pity Betina for long — and Venturini does not let the reader pity any of her characters. "[A]nything goes in this filthy world of ours," she observes early in the novel. "So there's no use feeling too sorry for anyone or anything."

Anything goes seems to determine Cousins' trajectory. Betina gets abused by a predatory man, as does the sisters' cousin Carina; Carina's sister Petra uses sex as a means to bloody revenge. Yuna, meanwhile, manages to evade exploitation to some degree, embarking on an artistic career that gives her independence. In Maude's translation, Cousins' prose generally tends toward an acidic form of directness, but when Yuna paints, the book morphs. Brushes in hand, she enters a trance in which "the events I'd experienced [transformed] into figures ever more colorful and beautiful that in my imagination moved and talked to me forcing me to take them outside of me and pour them onto the cardboard and canvases." Her trances are her ticket to freedom — which she shares with Petra and Betina. Cousins is hardly a redemptive story — Venturini pokes enough mean-spirited fun at Catholicism that the very idea of redemption seems at odds with her book — and yet, through art, offers its characters the same startling freedom that Venturini offers herself.

Lily Meyer is a writer, translator, and critic. Her first novel, Short War, is forthcoming from A Strange Object in 2024.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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